A Minority of a Minority

While I was busking with the English Concertina last Saturday, in the distance I heard a sound; this sound got nearer and then I saw the reason for it. A large group of Morris Dancers were passing by, they had been performing in the town centre and now they were heading back to their cars. They still wore their bright coloured costumes, decorated hats, and ribbons hanging from their clothes; the women wore colourful dresses; “Middle England” with bells on their shoes.

As the concertina is a popular instrument amongst the Morris dancers of England I gave them a smile. But nothing, no response! No interest in the music I was playing (a Northumbrian tune called “Lindesfarne”) no interest showed on their faces. They were quiet, they looked ahead, and they were passive. After a few had passed I resumed my stance of looking down and concentrating on the melody. I ignored them as they ignored me.

I was not asking for anything, except a smile. Let’s face it folk music is not that popular, whenever I am playing I often get a smile or some sort of facial recognition from people who like folk music, but I think generally it is a minority who actually listen to it and even fewer who play it. I would have thought like-minded people would acknowledge one another, not everyone but at least some, and there was many of them. They kept on coming; there must have been many groups in the town that morning.

Morris dancers and musicians are a minority of a minority in the British folk world, their dances are quite strenuous and need to be taught to new people, it is not the waltz or polka type of dances that you spin your partner round and round. It is not something that people do without training; the general public “watch them” do their performance, but do not join in, it is not that type of dancing.

I think the general public considered them a joke; they are often depicted in comedies on TV. People who dress up in costumes, with sticks, bells and dance around with ribbons hanging from their clothes is not “normal” behaviour for an Englishman to do, whatever is odd is laughed at.

It is not an opinion I hold, in the past I went to a rehearsal of Morris dancers in Carlisle. I wanted to play my pipes to their dances, but they were not interested in that. Instead, they got me to dance one of their dances; it was hard work, I was knackered after the first dance; it is not easy and you need to be fit.

I have a friend who likes Morris Men as they like drinking and so does he, they seem to travel a lot and enjoy themselves with other Morris teams; they dance, play music, drink have a laugh; well some do but not this lot, none of them seemed happy at all.

Another friend of mine gets very abusive when it comes to Morris Dancers, he gets very “hot under the collar” let’s say; and says “it has no place in English culture”. I would not say that, but I think it is an “acquired taste” by its very nature and those who perform it do not pretend to be non-elitist, at least these Morris groups did not try to be friendly to me.

Another man I know, who plays English concertina, went to another local Morris team only to come away feeling “unwelcome” and he would not go back. It is a pity as they do have a reputation of being a “good laugh”.

These Morris people were not the laughing type! It was a serious hobby for them; they did not want to associate with buskers, even though they played the same music as me, had the same instruments and were from the same cultural tradition. But I was not them.

For me, folk music is not a hobby; and I do not dress up in colourful costumes, in fact I dislike dressing up when it comes to playing or dancing to traditional music. For me folk music is about “now” not rein-acting a history long gone. Folk music or traditional melodies are much of today as they were from the past and I do not need bright new colourful clothes to play it.

They passed by and I played on, and I am pleased to say that the general people on that day found what I played interesting, even if the “minority of a minority” did not.

Bandcamp: CDs

I have been re-looking at my Bandcamp site. It takes a lot of time to edit it.

I have re-mastered (as they say) the Border pipes CD “O’er the Dyke” and in doing so, it was like finding a lost manuscript, hidden in my archives. I had to re-understand what I was doing all those years ago while recording that CD, using the equipment I had back then. No such thing as DAWs as today, I used to record using a normal computer and its own sound programme. 2 computers to create 1 CD.

Technology moves so fast and now it is easier to record, edit and publish a CD using 1 computer and 1 programme. It takes a lot of time of course, days, weeks and months… but the actual recording can be done a lot quicker.

I have been working on 2 new CDs.

The 1st CD is of the Northumbrian Smallpipes: looking more closely at the Dixon manuscript, with their complex variations. And also I have been looking at various non-British melodies from Sweden, Spain, Belgium and France.

The reason for the mix of styles is a reflection of the countries that have influenced my music of the past 20 years. A CD has to be representative of what I am playing now, and what I am playing are melodies that are directly part of my life. Since I spend a lot of my time in Spain researching the bagpipe, I play a lot of Spanish bagpipe melodies, and since I visit Sweden I have collected 1 or 2 tunes from there… and so it goes on.

The 2nd CD is a concertina CD, with a doubling up of a mandolin on various tracks. The mandolin I started to play again after 30 years break. These tracks are a reflection of my busking activities in the UK and various duets I have been involved with in Spain. The style also covers a range of UK and Spanish melodies that work on the concertina (not all of them do work!). I had to learn a new repertoire on the concertina recently as one of the notes stopped working, so instead of transferring the existing melodies onto a new pitch, I learned a new repertoire in a different key.

These CDs I hope to have finished in December and January.

A New Musical Project

I have been playing more these days, learning new tunes… sometimes I do not practice for weeks, but these days I am learning a new repertoire for concertina, Scottish small pipes, Northumbrian Small pipes and Spanish gaita. This increase in playing could be because of a new project I have started with a Spanish fiddler called Alba. She lives in Madrid and we have decided to play together and start performing in public. We have known each other now for a few years and have a repertoire already, so it is a case of finalizing it and practicing. 
We are playing familiar and unfamiliar tunes from Northern Spain and the Scottish and English Borders… some from Ireland too. But we hope we are “highlighting” our musical “accents” not copying a style but interpreting the music in our own way…  using our musical culture and nationality/s to change the melody… to add and take away something.

I am playing Spanish melodies in a Border/Northumbria style… (we are limiting ourselves to areas such as Galicia, Zamora, Asturias, Basque, Catalonia, Mallorca…) and Alba is playing Northumbrian/Scottish Border melodies in a Spanish style… so a jig is not really a jig and a jota is not really a jota… the Irish melodies are not played in an “Irish style”, but something “foreign” to both of us!
It is an interesting project, finding a name, exploring the music and trying to practicing while we are in our own countries and meeting when we can… but we hope by spring 2015 we will be ready and performing live.

We have a set list worked out and it is an interesting mix of music, this list will probably change as time progresses so it is interesting to record it for now:
Zontzico / Morfa Rhuddlan (Basque/Welsh)
Old Drops of Brandy (Borders)
O’Carolyn Set (Irish)
Alloa House / Romances (Scottish/Zamora)
Mr. Prestons Hornpipe (Borders)
Sir John Fenwicks (Northumbrian)
Newmarket Races (Northumbrian)
Jackey Layton (Northumbrian)
Ann Thou Were My Ain Thing (Borders)
Autumn Child / Rights of Man / Proudlock’s Hornpipe (Irish)

Morigana in Spain / Welcome to Vigo / The Spanish Cloak (Northumbrian/Scottish/Irish)
Redondela / Saddle the Pony (Galician/Irish)
Noble Squire Dacre / Go to Bewick Johnny (Northumbrian)
Basque melody / Roxburgh Castle / Hesleyside Reel (Basque/Northumbrian)
Bollero de St. Maria / Zamora Melody (Mallorca/Zamora)
Galician Melody / Frisky (Galicia/Northumbria)
Highland Laddie (Borders)
Loch Ryan / Bonny Millar (Scottish Highland/Borders)
This probably needs more Spanish melodies… or to take away a few UK melodies … early days yet !!
The instruments will vary also, Alba plays violin and a Baroque violin, this depends if I am playing concertina (440c) or Northumbrian Small pipes (415c)…

New Pipe/Concertina CD

It has been nearly 5 years since I made my last CD on the Bagpipes, but I have begun to make another one quite recently, not surprisingly it is made up from the environment I have been living in for the past 3 years…Spain and Sweden and of course the Scottish Borders. I became aware that a lot of the melodies I have been learning, listening too and practicing have not been melodies from my own region (I guess this is why I made a effort to learn new Border Pipe melodies – see “New Melodies for the Border Pipes” blog post below).

This new CD are mainly melodies from Northern Spain (Catalonia, Sanabria, Galicia) and these reflect the contacts I have had during my time there, they are not only notes or notation, but memories and people, places and times.

Another group of melodies are from Sweden, a country I like very much and have spent time kayaking and enjoying the nature, Their music fits very well into the Northumbrian Small Pipe fingering and scale range. Some of these melodies I learned from a harpist I play with in the UK, we play only ‘non-British’ melodies from France, Sweden and Spain and these will also be included on the CD mainly Scottisches and bourrées.

A few Belgium/Nederland tunes will be there too, I got these melodies when I lived in Amsterdam in the 1980s and I remember my time there through these tunes.
And of course there will be a few Northumbrian melodies with a 2nd voice/harmony to accompany the pipes. I will also include the English concertina  on some of the melodies either to accompany the leading melody or to add a 2nd harmony. Since the Northumbrian Small Pipes are ‘somewhere’ between a F and a F# I have to correct the pitch of the concertina!

The Cd is enjoyable to do but it takes many hours work, and this is only with the recordings…not to mention the mixing, production, CD design and printing…

Pipes, Concertina and Boat.

I have been back from Madrid now for 4 days and I have busy with one thing and another.

Monday i went to the boat to check on her, she was fine, the strong winds had blown off a section of tarp and i tied it down with more ropes as the strong winds are not finished yet and bailed a little water out from the bilges. I brought the seat covers home to be cleaned.

I tired busking in Carlisle from 4pm until 6pm tuesday and wednesday, but it was slow. It is a time i normally do not play, but since i was going to be in town in the evenings i thought i would give it a try, anyways it is good for practising if nothing else.

Thursday, I played some European melodies on the concertina: Galician, French and Swedish in preparation for a practise next week with the harpist. Later, I got the Border pipes out and practised for tomorrow’s session in Langholm with 2 other Border pipers. The melodies are long, and I am out of practise with the runs and keeping the instrument steady, but they sounded good and relatively in tune to concert pitch “A”…amazing. I mended the strap on my bellows to make it more secure, as it has a habit of coming off in mid-tune. Played more in the evening until my ears rang!

The "Jackie" Concertina

The “Jackie” English is a 2 octave chromatic concertina I bought from Barleycorn Concertinas about 3 months ago. I have been playing it nearly every day since I bought it trying to establish a repertoire I can busk with this summer as well as my Northumbrian Small Pipes and Border Pipes. It is my first concertina I own, I did start off with a Hohner Anglo 20 button concertina in Bb but it was badly out of tune and the bellows leaked. I had some music notation of the Northumbrian Pipes with harmonies and I wanted to play this music on the concertina, I found the 20 button Anglo limiting on the harmony line so I decided to switch techniques and buy the English system instead. I later found out that the harmonies are equally difficult to play on the English as the fingering is not as easy as on the Anglo, but with practice it is ok; but I do believe by trying the two systems out that the Anglo is the easier of the two to get a basic harmonic accompaniment for a basic folk melody.
The Jackie has accordion reeds, but the action is good, light and strong, the springs are good and I think will last a long time. The fingering is ok except for a few notes in the bass nearest the finger straps that are hard to get at, but again with practise and by using different fingers one can reach them alright. It is bigger and heavier than the Hohner but that is to be expected and it is quite loud and I think it is a good choice for busking or playing with a group, and since I play a range of UK and European melodies I can get the different semitones that sometimes occur in the scale of foreign melodies.
I enjoy playing melodies in their right key, and not having to think too much about in which direction to pump air. I am trying to memorize new melodies and relearn my pipe melodies, so I am concentrating on UK fiddle tunes: reels, hornpipes, polkas etc. As well as some melodies from Sweden and Spain, I am getting these into my head and starting to play them from memory, and trying to play around with the melodies to make them ‘live’ and not just to play ‘dots on a page’. It is progressing nicely.

Harp and Concertina

WE visited a harpist near to our home today. She has busked over Europe and now makes her living by playing small festivals and doing a lot of weddings. She is a good player and when we meet we tend to play European melodies mainly from Sweden, Spain and France, but also some melodies from Turkey, Czech Republic, Belgium and Medieval, but strangely enough not British or Irish! I play the Northumbrian pipes and the Turkish Ney – an open-ended cane flute. We have been playing together for a few months now and are working on a CD and a repertoire to go playing this spring, do a few gigs and some busking.
Later that evening at home I played my English concertina, trying to play from memory the tunes I have been trying to memories since I bought it (about 3 months ago). With this instrument I play English fiddle music, a few Irish melodies, and Northumbrian and European melodies. The beauty with the concertina is that it has a range of 2 octaves and it is chromatic so most melodies are in range for me now. There is no transposing or worrying about the range, it is already tuned and it is ready to play, and I do frequently. I played for about an hour and a half, but I need more practise if I am to busk with it this year.
I got an e-mail from a fellow Border piper arranging a meeting next week over the border in Scotland that is good as I would like to play Border pipes now; it has been such a long time!